You don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.

Thursday, 22 December 2011


Here are my picks from 2011’s releases. It’s been a good year, with several debut albums making my list alongside some firmly established favourites and even a new Radiohead album. I’d love to write a bit on why everything is where it is, but who has the time?

Just remember, I’m not saying these are the best, they are just my favourites, and we all have different taste. If you agree with anything though, feel free to compliment me on my excellent taste.

 Holocene by boniver

Albums of the year
  1. Bon Iver – Bon Iver
  2. Anna Calvi – Anna Calvi
  3. Radiohead – The King of Limbs
  4. The Drums – Portamento
  5. Yuck - Yuck
  6. PJ Harvey – Let England Shake
  7. James Blake – James Blake
  8. The Kills – Blood Pressures 
  9. Laura Marling – A Creature I Don’t Know
  10. Benjamin Francis Leftwich – Last Smoke Before the Snowstorm
Honourable mentions: Fleet Foxes – Helplessness Blues, The Horrors – Skying, I Break Horses – Hearts, The Joy Formidable – The Big Roar, Ben Howard – Every Kingdom, Pains of Being Pure at Heart – Belong, Death Cab for Cutie – Codes and Keys, Florence + The Machine – Ceremonials, Lykke Li – Wounded Rhymes, Daughter – His Young Heart EP + The Wild Youth EP.

Crystal Fighters - Plage

Songs of the year
  1. Crystal Fighters – Plage
  2. Metronomy – The Bay
  3. Anna Calvi – Desire
  4. Laura Marling - Sophia 
  5. Bon Iver – Holocene
  6. Summer Camp – Better Off Without You
  7. The Drums – Money 
  8. Bombay Bicycle Club – Shuffle
  9. James Blake – The Wilhelm Scream
  10. Yuck – The Wall
  11. Ghostpoet – Liiines
  12. Metronomy – The Look
  13. I Break Horses – Winter Beats
  14. Little Scream – Cannons
  15. Lykke Li – Jerome
  16. The Kills – Baby Says
  17. Daughter – Candles
  18. Benjamin Francis Leftwich – Butterfly Culture
  19. Pains of Being Pure at Heart – Belong
  20. Ben Howard – Old Pine
  21. Florence + the Machine – What the Water Gave Me
  22. Radiohead – Separator
  23. Outfit – Two Islands
  24. Hooray for Earth – True Loves
  25. Noah and the Whale – Waiting for My Chance to Come

Although this is a music blog, here are a few films I’ve liked this year, in no order because I’m lazy.
  • Drive
  • Never Let Me Go
  • Midnight in Paris
  • Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
  • 50/50
  • Submarine
  • Black Swan
  • The Rum Diary
  • Bridesmaids
  • The Fighter
Merry Christmas and thanks for reading this year, here's to a successful 2012

Friday, 16 December 2011

Festive Three for all.

It’s the week before Christmas and we’ve all been saturated with the same old stuff for going on a month now, is anyone else fed up yet?

It’s still hard to pick out just three Christmas songs though, knowing I may never do so on this blog again (my effort lasting until next December is questionable). There has been some debate, with a colleague pushing for the 'breathtaking buoyancy and melodic momentum' of Elton John’s Step Into Christmas. Ahem, I’ll leave him to it on that one.

While my favourite Christmas song is the obvious and most played of the 21st century, The Pogues and Kirstie MacColl’s Fairytale of New York, I’d like to highlight a few lesser-known or just alternative Christmas songs. Of which there are a surprising amount, with The Ramones, Smashing Pumpkins, The Raveonettes, RUN-DMC and The Killers amongst many to have released credible efforts.

I should preface my list by saying that, although I am no Scrooge and enjoy Christmas as much as the next guy (in spite of annual comparisons to Tiny Tim), I’m particularly fond of melancholy Christmas songs. The long dark nights, the bleak weather, the excessive drinking, the arguments, spending time with family, it’s a perfect time of year for being justifiably miserable.

And this has been reflected in music over the years, with a number of seasonably sorrowful songs making it into the mainstream xmas canon. The aforementioned Pogues, Mud’s Lonely This Christmas, The Pretenders’ 2000 Miles and even Wham’s Last Christmas are all stories of misery.

So first up, from a festive EP released a few years ago called A Snowflake Fell (And It Felt Like A Kiss), a perfectly melancholy name indeed, is Glasvegas’ Please Come Back Home.

Raw, emotive and containing one of the most poignantly realistic lyrics ever put in a Christmas song - ‘The beauty and the elegance of this time of year only heightens all the darkness in me’ – this tale of lost love is tragic and yet hopeful. Perfect for a post-argument moment of reflection.

Next up is Joni Mitchell’s River. Famed for her lyrics of longing and disillusionment, Christmas was probably a pretty easy target for her, and this piano ballad with an arrangement similar to Jingle Bells certainly resonates.

From her celebrated Blue album, it tells of a longing to escape from the Christmas spirit around that we can all identify with sometime over the festive period.

And, just to put my credibility through the roof, Robert Downey Jr. did a pretty good version on Ally McBeal, which you can see here. Everyone loves RDJ.

Finally this week, to lighten the mood somewhat, is a new song I heard this week from Gruff Rhys. The Super Furry’s frontman, who I caught at Moseley Folk earlier this year, will release the brilliantly titled Athiest Xmas EP on Monday (19 December). But its more upbeat than its name suggests, even this track, Post Apocalypse Christmas, a jaunty romp about, well, what the title suggests.

 Gruff Rhys - Post Apocalypse Christmas by PIASGermany

And because this blog is the gift that keeps giving, I’d also recommend a couple of new albums for Christmas 2011. Firstly, A Very She & Him Christmas, an album of reworked classics and a few lesser-known covers featuring Zooey Deschanel’s beautiful, old-timey vocals, check out a live vid here. And for something a bit more alternative and fun, This Is Christmas from Tim Wheeler and Emmy the Great, featuring songs such as Zombie Christmas and Jesus the Reindeer, and Home for the Holidays.

No one can say I haven't got in the spirit now, just look at this picture.

Friday, 9 December 2011

Three for all.

Apologies for missing last week’s Three for all, a late night at work combined with a weekend in London meant time was limited, plus I bet no one noticed anyway. So, my festive Three for all will be pushed to next week, and my end of year lists will also appear sometime soon.

My three songs this week (technically from last week) are all courtesy of the fine people of 6 Music, having heard all these singles played recently, and, to be honest, it's not my most diverse selection, featuring three young bands who fit the classic ‘white, male, guitar-based indie’ label. Comparisons can be easily drawn between them, but what’s wrong with consistency?

First up is Geordie three-piece Little Comets, whose song Worry has been doing the rounds for a few weeks and has worked its way onto the A list at 6, quite an achievement in itself. The band has already had an eventful career, including signing with a major label and then acrimoniously leaving, before releasing their debut album in early 2011.

This song has a sound reminiscent of Vampire Weekend, particularly its riff and vocals. It’s a burst of sunshine, full of bounce and intricate guitars, perfect for forgetting the dreariness outside.

Taken from an EP of the same name released on 12 December, Little Comets are one to watch for next year.

 Little Comets - Worry by indieisnotagenre

Next up is Bear Cavalry, increasing the tempo with new track Roman Summer. This four-piece from Hampshire formed in 2008 and have released several EPs to date, this song is the first song on their latest EP, Maple Trails, also released on December 12.

The precise intertwining riffs that start the song and provide a balance after the louder moments are what grabbed my attention when I first heard it on 6.

The variation between the delicate and technical verses and the raw and noisy chorus suggest a band still finding their sound, but of one technically capable of creating any sound they want. It reminds me of Foals’ Cassius, which is not a bad starting point for any band.

 Roman Summer by Bear Cavalry

Coastal Cities’ Thinktank is the last song this week. The song has been around a while, but was rereleased on an EP of the same name on 5 December, and has been getting some decent airplay over the last two weeks.

Coastal Cities are five guys from High Wycombe, the founding members met in detention when they were 17, I like stories like that.

And Thinktank is full of pacey guitars and drums, projecting a real youthful energy, drawing comparisons with early material from The Drums, who took a liking to the song and tweeted about it upon its first release earlier in the year.

The heartbeat of the song for me is the overlapping guitar lines that soundtrack the short but catchy exclaim of ‘It’s just a thinktank, It’s just a thinktank’ in the chorus.

 Coastal Cities - Thinktank by CoastalCities

These three songs can hopefully help drag you through these short and dark winter days with a bit of energy and brightness, and provide you with a brief respite from the endless repeats of Slade and Wizard that haunt this month every year.

Friday, 25 November 2011

Three for all.

My Three for all this week features three female vocalists at completely different stages of their careers.

Up first, as I have just bought tickets to see her next year, is Florence + the Machine. Having never really joined in the hype around Florence with her first album Lungs, finding her cover of You’ve Got the Love particularly annoying, she has nevertheless changed my opinion of her with new album, Ceremonials.

The two singles released in advance of the album, What the Water Gave Me and Shake It Out, were both outstanding, the first a gothic epic in the same vein as Heavy in Your Arms, the song she contributed to the soundtrack of the last Twilight film, the second an uplifting example of Florence’s vocal range becoming an instrument itself, supported by organs and thumping drums.

The song I am choosing to spotlight though is album track Breaking Down, a piano-led song that would almost sound upbeat if it weren’t for the affecting lyrics, which Florence teases with subdued, whispering delivery. These, backed by further layers of her vocals and a choir, create the rich and atmospheric sound that is a feature of the album. A perfect pop hymn.

Next is the first track from Kate Bush’s outstanding new album, 50 Words for Snow.

I’ve liked Kate Bush for a while without really knowing too much about her, but the build up to the release of this album has been prominent on 6 Music, and opener Snowflake has been played several times, which is enough to compel you. It’s not a song you can easily shake off, as across its runtime of nearly ten minutes, its dramatic imagery floods your mind and stays there. While it may not make sense to some, she has somehow captured the sound of winter, whatever that may be.

I’m not sure anyone has written a concept album about snow before, despite it being an endlessly fascinating subject to take on. As even The Snowman showed, its fleeting existence can be heartbreaking, and figurative for so many other subjects, obvious ones being love and death. The darkness, the isolation, and the bleakness of a winter snowstorm is all captured within this sparse ballad of hushed vocals and piano. First person lyrics tell us of being born in a cloud and falling, longing to be caught. It’s a strangely desolate viewpoint.

Will Florence, or anyone else around at the moment for that matter, still be making music as original and captivating as this in 30 years time? It doesn’t seem likely.

This song, and album, was made for winter. In an interview, Kate Bush said that if she hadn't finished it soon enough, it would have had to wait to be released until next winter, so enjoy it while the nights are dark and long. It’s the perfect soundtrack for a winter walk under a dark orange sky, as snow silently falls around you. If it snows this winter, that’s what I’ll be doing.

Last up is an artist who is a musical toddler compared to Kate Bush. Elena Tonra aka Daughter, has been a revelation for me this year, despite only releasing a handful of songs across two EPs. This Londoner possesses a spellbinding voice, both delicate and forceful, and uses it to tell tragic tales of love and loss.

Her His Young Heart EP may be my most played release of the year, featuring four flawless acoustic songs. It can be listened to on Soundcloud here. And, as I’m generous and can’t pick just one, here are all four songs from her equally stunning new release, The Wild Youth EP, for you to enjoy.

I devastatingly missed her play in Birmingham in October with Benjamin Francis Leftwich, but hope she will return to the second city soon. She is one to watch for the future as 2012 will hopefully yield an album.

Friday, 18 November 2011

Three for all.

Has it been a week already? My second 'Three for all' comes hot on the heels of my interview with Q Magazine’s Editor Paul Rees, who discussed the use of lists in modern music journalism, and what goes into creating a list such as Q’s Top 50 Albums of the Year. If you haven’t read it already, it’s an insight into the UK's second biggest music monthly.

My first recommendation this week is Down by Summer Camp, the second single from the retro indie-pop duo’s excellent debut album Welcome to Condale. The only problem with the first track released from your album being one of the best tracks of the year, which Better Off Without You undoubtedly was, is that you then have to follow it with something. But Down sees the duo upping the tempo and replacing the Footloose-y groove with fuzzy garage guitars, as they continue to delve into life in the imaginary LA suburb their songs inhabit.

They have a fascinating knack of placing melancholy subject matter, lyrics of failed relationships and wasted lives, over buoyant music laced with twinkly synth moments, to create something infectious and defiantly upbeat.

Elizabeth Sankey and Jeremy Warmsley funded their debut album through Pledgemusic by selling items from signed merch and private gigs to homemade brownies and even a sparkly jumpsuit worn by Elizabeth at Reading festival, and it’s a good thing they did, as it’s one of the year’s best.

Having missed Birmingham out on their most recent tour, they have now announced a date at The Rainbow in March, which I can’t wait for.

 Down by Summer Camp

Up next is James Vincent McMorrow’s stripped-down cover of Steve Winwood’s Higher Love.

In a week when the John Lewis Christmas ad once again proved that no matter how good a song is, a soulless and bland cover of it can still become popular, this cover gives hope that some musicians can take a song and add something to it, rather than taking away. Ironically, McMorrow has added by removing, stripping the song to its bare bones with a less is more aesthetic.

I noticed this song from another ad as it goes, a Love Film ad, and it wormed its way into my consciousness over a number of views until I had to google who it was. This folk troubadour from Dublin is very much in the vein of Bon Iver, which is both good and bad, but this cover is a haunting and heartfelt version. With its falsetto vocal and echoing piano, it’s a million miles away from the number-one hit of the 1980s. It’s how a cover should be.

 Higher Love by jamesvmcmorrow

My third and final song this week is from a band close to my heart, literally, as I work with their drummer, and what would be the point of having a blog if I couldn’t give them a mention?

Is I Cinema are a five-piece from Birmingham, and The Unnamed is one of several new songs they have recorded to follow their 2010 debut EP ‘Is I Cinema, You Are Physics’.

I’ve seen Is I Cinema live five times this year, and seen this song develop over a number of months into this finalised version, which was recorded over a weekend at Magic Garden Studios, Wolverhampton in September 2011 with Gavin Monaghan (Editors, The Jesus and Mary Chain, Scott Matthews) producing.

They’ve been described as indescribable by better writers than me, and I’ll admit to finding it difficult to encapsulate all they do in a single sentence.

This song builds from a sparse opening of delicate vocals and keyboards, to a crescendo of atmospheric, layered guitar and swirling synth sounds, anchored with pounding drums and pleading lyrics.

 The Unnamed by is i cinema

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

Paul Rees.

The world loves a list

Lists are everywhere these days. You can’t pick up a magazine or visit a website or watch TV without seeing a greatest 100 this or a top 50 that. Making lists can even lead to a role in an Oscar-winning film, just ask Liam Neeson.

Lists are made about anything and everything, from the banal to the bizarre, the funny to the fascinating. We are all obsessed with, somewhat unnecessarily, ordering things and seeing how others do the same, especially when it comes to music.

This isn’t a new phenomenon, Desert Island Discs, the ever-popular radio programme in which a guest is asked to pick only a few pieces of music to be stranded with, is the second longest running factual programme on the radio, first being broadcast in January 1942.

Lists on music aren’t new, though the Internet has given people a voice to answer back, and they often do, with vitriol, ridicule and adulation, depending on their own viewpoint.

So how important are lists in modern music journalism? I spoke to Paul Rees, Editor of Q, about his own thoughts on lists, how the magazine uses them and what goes into producing their most important list of the year, the Top 50 Albums of the Year.

“My personal opinion is that done right, lists can be fascinating, provocative and useful. Done badly, they're lazy and boring,” Paul says, alluding to the problem of lists being used as quick and easy filler, hence their domination in modern journalism.

However, Paul admits to finding bad lists almost as engrossing as good ones. “I will still watch something as wretched as, say, the ‘100 Greatest TV Comedy Shows’ at Christmas, ostensibly to vent my spleen at the epic stupidity of the world at large for their choices. But also, even then, to be reminded of and relive flickering moments of magic,” he admits.

So, other than finding a sense of superiority in knowing that we, the reader or viewer, are right and they are wrong, what is it about lists that make them endlessly readable?

“I think lists simply carry an enduring fascination to people that isn't specific to journalism – but the media as whole and indeed life in general,” he says.

“It's one of the reasons Desert Island Discs is eternally popular: the notion of finding out how a person pares something down and the attendant debate it sparks is an engaging process. Q tries to make lists that are either useful, like the 50 Albums of the Year, and/or entertaining. Like everyone though we have been guilty in the past of over-using them,” he admits.

Paul has a rare viewpoint, having been on both sides of the judgement as someone who both compiles important and widely-read lists, and reads those of others. Does this position lead to a desire to please and avoid criticism from others, or does it only increase your conviction?

“In any event, you're never, ever going to please everybody. And that would also defeat the object to a certain extent,” Paul says.

“All lists provoke the same reaction, I suspect. People agree with anything that validates their own viewpoint and fulminate when it doesn't – and, often as not, do both together.

“I remember us copping an epic amount of flak one year for the temerity of having a Coldplay record as our album of the year. It was a record that had been bought, and enjoyed, by several million people. The implicit suggestion being that they, and we, were all wrong.

“By the way, I hasten to add that this flak came from other folk in the media – not readers. The readers/online users generally debate the whole of a list: the merits of what’s on it, what’s missing. That being precisely what you’d hope for – that on some level the content engages people.”

As alluded to, end of year lists are the most important in music journalism, Paul says of them, “I think they’re important in the sense that it's Q's chance to crystallise our view of music – and, increasingly so this year, that of the artists we write about and the readers.”

While creating a list yourself may be difficult, imagine trying to make a list that encompasses a magazine’s whole outlook on music, while also taking on board the individuality of each member of staff. As passionate as fans are, journos make a living from being obsessive and opinionated, and one who has championed a band in reviews and features throughout the year may feel a personal involvement in seeing said band placed high up the list. Is compiling a list that the staff are happy with even more difficult than one that readers are happy with?

“In my experience, compiling year-end lists for magazines is an enjoyable experience. Everyone has their say, debates can be heated, but it’s rare indeed that people don’t recognise the fact that the list should – and ultimately does – reflect the magazine’s view over individual choice.

“With Q, the list itself is compiled from mid-October by polling all the magazine's staff and its writers. That process is concluded in mid-November and the results of the poll are then debated by the editorial team. We take a final view on the standings. In my experience we haven’t had anyone take issue with the final outcome of any such poll.”

Paul’s favourite album of the year? “Bon Iver - Bon Iver. Without a doubt. A work of beauty.” To see where Paul’s choice makes it on this year’s list, buy the 50 Albums of the Year issue, available on 29 November. After wholly agreeing with their choice last year (The Suburbs), I’m keen to see which side I will fall on this year. And my own list will appear nearer to Christmas. Thanks Paul.

Friday, 11 November 2011

Three for all.

Because I was raised properly, I learned to share. When it comes to music, I live to share.

Over half of my Facebook statuses are links to songs on Spotify, Soundcloud or YouTube that I hope someone, somewhere listens to, though I doubt it. I’d say 90% of all my statuses and tweets are music related.

A friend recently mentioned she would like to know more new music. Without her saying anymore, I made her three CD’s worth. Across them there were just under 60 songs, with no band featuring twice. The total run time came in at a just under 4 hours and honestly that was only because of the limitations of CDs. It's an obsession really. It’s the reason I enjoyed being on student radio so much.

So, to satisfy my need to share further, this is the first of a new feature where every Friday, I will aim to share a few songs I’ve been enjoying that week. My Friday 'Three for all'. Clever eh?

First up is I See New Things Every Day by Pandas and People. I saw this young band in Kings Heath on Wednesday, and their brand of indie pop is certainly catchy, in the same vein as Two Door Cinema Club. They’ve already had exposure on 6 Music and recorded their debut album, also available on Soundcloud, so keep an eye out for this exciting four-piece from Redditch.

 I See New Things Everyday by Pandas and People

Next up is Sidewalk Safari by Chairlift, which I heard on 6 Music this week. I’ll admit I hadn’t heard of them before, but this Brooklyn based electro pop duo have been around since 2005 and have a successful album under their belt, with a track featured in an iPod advert in 2008, which is a pretty big deal in this day and age. This track, the opener from their upcoming third album Something, is an offbeat frenzy of synth noise with excellently delivered and disturbing lyrics, including ‘I am bad with bows and arrows, I’m not so good at guns, poison seems old fashioned […] but I do know how to drive a car faster than a man can run’.

Last up this week is Waiting for My Chance to Come by Noah and the Whale. Since their ‘fun fun fun’ hit 5 Years Time got overplayed in 2008, I haven’t given them much attention, hearing more about frontman Charlie Fink’s troubles getting over Laura Marling (which I admit must be difficult) than their music. But seeing this song performed on Jools a while ago and hearing it on the radio a bit, it’s a really good tune. And the album it’s taken from is a solid listen too.

Saturday, 5 November 2011

Anna Calvi.

The perfect gig?

I had the pleasure of seeing the rather wonderful Anna Calvi at Birmingham’s HMV Institute on Friday night (4th November). During the gig, in a semi-mesmerised state brought on by her spell-binding presence, a thought entered my head that slowly grew into this very blog. The idea crossed my mind that the evening was one of those occasions when all the elements that make up live music had come together to form something rare, something special. The perfect gig.

As I walked away from the venue, I mentally listed all the things that have to be in place for a gig to be great in my eyes, and as I put this gig through the gauntlet of my own expectations, it came out the other end smiling.

So what are the elements that all play a part in making a gig special?

The first is obvious, the music. Seeing an artist or band you care about on top of their game is the foundation of a great gig, with the ability to play the songs as they sound on the recording or make them even better required to impress.

What songs they play and the order they play them is equally important as how well they play the songs too. A well-balanced set list, with a mixture of singles, album tracks, covers and rarities can make a gig great. Refusing to play your biggest song or ignoring one of your albums completely (unless it’s been advertised in advance) is a sure-fire way of ruining a gig for someone, there are bound to be people there who want to hear it even if you don’t want to play it, and you’re nothing without your audience.

It’s not only the music they play or don’t play that is important, the way they act is another stickler for me. Certain bands can pull off arrogance, some cannot. Arriving onstage late can build suspense or annoy. Humility is a particularly endearing quality for me. It’s great to see a humble artist, who thanks the audience at every possible occasion, and look as pleased to be playing in Birmingham on a wet Friday as they did on the Glastonbury TV highlights.

Between song banter is a tricky subject too. I don’t mind an artist who just sticks to the music, it’s what we came to see, but a few good one-liners or amusing anecdotes can definitely make an impression. However, if you come out of a gig and say the most memorable thing about it was the talking between the songs (i.e. Badly Drawn Boy at Moseley Folk), that speaks volumes about the music.

There is also the fact that the band you go to see won’t be the only band you do see, and while expectations should never be too high for support bands, a surprisingly good support band, that does more than just pass the time, can improve the atmosphere and take a gig up another notch.

Unfortunately, and sometimes unfairly, the people on stage aren’t the only people who can make or ruin a gig. An annoying audience is a particular pet peeve of mine, to the point where the people around me annoy me so much I can no longer focus on the music at all.

A great audience for me has to be the right size and volume, and be attentive. A gig that has sold a few too many tickets can feel like a cattle market, a gig that has sold too few can be an uncomfortable experience, especially if you make too much eye contact with the disappointed people on stage. The audience have to be quiet, silent even, during the right moments of the gig, and be loud with applause and cheering to keep the band encouraged and enthusiastic.

An audience who know and appreciate the songs are great, as long as they don’t sing over the band, try to start too many clap-a-long or sing guitar parts.

On to the surroundings, choice of venue is difficult again, sometimes bands are clearly in the wrong venue but can hardly be blamed if they’ve never played a gig there before. Sound quality and acoustics vary in importance depending on the band. A band with quiet, intricate sounds need a venue with good acoustics, whereas a loud, distorted band can make an atmosphere in even the shittiest hellhole.

The venues with the best sound quality in Birmingham are the Town Hall or The Alexandra, but unfortunately not many bands seem to realise this and play the Academy or Institute instead, both of which are adequate venues.

So back to where we started, Anna Calvi at the aforementioned Institute and why it was a perfect gig.

Firstly, when we arrived the audience was small, giving us a choice of standing place and allowing us to get not only a place on a balcony, already unheard of, but a couple of seats on the balcony, with great views of the stage and little chance of pushing and shoving.

The support band Halloween, Alaska were good, enough to get me to find out their name so I could check them out later. Their music was well suited to the gig and they got the audience, which was by then a decent size, warmed up nicely.

Anna and her band, an excellent drummer providing backing vocals and a perfectly eccentric percussionist playing all manner of instruments, took to the stage at the expected time. They played a set perfect in length, between too short and too long, with all the songs I wanted to hear and a few interesting covers (Elvis Presley, Edith Piaf), played in an order that balanced her quiet/loud moments, building an atmosphere from the first notes.

Every song was a highlight, from opener Rider To The Sea, where Anna warmed up her fingers with some virtuoso playing, to a prolonged version of album-closer Love Won't Be Leaving ending the set before the encore of Edith Piaf cover Jezebel with its pounding beat ensuring the gig maintained its intensity to the last second.

Anna is an arresting presence on stage, in her male flamenco dancer outfit of high-waisted trousers and a red silk shirt, her hair slicked back, dark eye makeup making her eyes bright and alarming, and her Telecaster worn high up her chest. And she has the talent to match the theatrics. She hit every note heard on her record, while simultaneously coaxing some beautiful notes from either of her two guitars.

The venue suited her intricate, quiet moments of delicate guitars and breathy vocals, as well as allowing her more boisterous strumming and booming vocals to soar. You could hear a pin drop during the quiet moments, but the applause was raucous and lengthy when the songs ended.

Anna said thank you after every song and seemed to genuinely enjoy the performance as much as the audience clearly did.

This gig ticked all the boxes. The only thing that wasn’t perfect about the evening was my lack of a camera to document it, but we can’t really blame Anna for that. So what makes your perfect gig?

Friday, 7 October 2011

Lana Del Rey.

No such thing as bad publicity.

Lana Del Rey is currently the third most blogged about artist in the world, so Lauren Laverne told me on 6 Music earlier.

What a success story. An unestablished artist going global with only one song and the power of the internet to get her there, right?

Over the last month she, and her still yet to be released debut single Video Games have exploded onto the music scene, garnering almost 1.7 million YouTube views and a seldom seen reaction from the music public.

Her record label must be salivating at the attention she has received, despite the fact her actual musical output, granted only a couple of songs, has been almost overshadowed by her authenticity and appearance. In an age where we must know everything about everyone, and a detailed Wikipedia entry or comprehensive website is expected of every artist, no matter their size, are we meant to think this hasn’t all been a carefully orchestrating publicity stunt?

If you’re unaware, Lana Del Rey is the alter ego of Lizzie Grant, who was a struggling pop singer until what she describes as a ‘series of managers and lawyers’ came up with Lana, a bona fide, vintage-clad bombshell with just a hint of cosmetic surgery about her.

It’s nothing new, every artist has a carefully considered image and more than we imagine are probably created by someone other than the artist. So why the fuss over this particular girl?

Is it because Video Games is actually a really good song? A song deserving of attention, no matter how the attention is achieved. A song people want to love and shout about in their blogs but now feel they can’t because of some misplaced ideology about being set up or marketed to.

While anyone who thinks that image has nothing to do with music is naïve, in reality her image is no more important to the quality of the song than Jonathan Pierce’s dodgy haircut is to The Drums.

So is it because she has been aimed specifically at the people who are writing the blogs that have been so quick to savage her? People who may believe they are only interested in the music and not the marketing. Someone like myself even. I’ll admit to feeling a slight unease at the cosmetic surgery aspect, if it proves true, but other than that, I congratulate whoever created this character, they know what we want and have done their job well.

I still like the song, and in an age where music is in my headphones more than in front of my eyes, I honestly don’t find it that important what she looks like. A colleague went as far to say that I’d ruined the song for him when I told him the furor around her, but he still turns up the volume when it comes on.

So now they’ve got my attention and the attention of millions of others, and most people won’t care at all about the back story of an artist for a song they really like, their exercise has obviously worked. A great song has great awareness. Job done. A few bloggers are pissed off, but who cares about them?

Their excessive posting and sniping has been counterproductive in that she is now the third most blogged about artist in the world. That’s a great statistic, a statistic that doesn’t in any way indicate the general consensus of the blogs that have mentioned her. Likewise, she will probably have a number one single soon, maybe because of the attention their negativity has given her, but a number one none the less.

And for a group who would probably argue that they only care about the music, they’ve ignored a great song because of its back story.

She is a lesson in the upside of marketing and the downside of blogging. By blogging, they’ve only drawn attention to something that they wanted to receive none. Maybe if you’ve got nothing nice to blog, don’t blog anything at all.

Saturday, 24 September 2011


Twenty years ago today, Nirvana’s seminal Nevermind was released, I was three years old.

By the time I discovered it properly, Nevermind was 13 years old and Kurt Cobain had been dead for ten years. I was aware of Nirvana before then, in particular Smells Like Teen Spirit, which was, and still is, on heavy rotation across my choice of music channels.

But it was MTV’s flurry of documentaries, countdowns and interviews around the ten year anniversary of his death in April 2004 that really caught my attention. Within weeks, I had bought every album they released, along with DVDs and biographies of Nirvana, Kurt, Dave Grohl and Kurt’s diaries. On a trip to purchase my first guitar not long after, I trekked to the other side of London to hold Kurt’s guitar and wear his sunglasses at the Hard Rock Café. It would be fair to say I became fairly obsessed with Nirvana, they were my first musical love, and at the heart of that was Nevermind, their complexly simple masterpiece.

When I got to uni and started knocking out reviews and making magazines to amuse myself, Nevermind was the first classic album I reviewed. I thought about reusing my review for this blog, but having reviewed my own review now, it isn’t good enough to see the light of day again.

So what can I say about this album that hasn’t been said thousands of times since its release now twenty years ago? Probably not a lot. But that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t say anything. It’s a cliché, but Nirvana mean a lot to me, and millions of others, because they taught us nothing if not that everyone has a voice and can use it.

Simply, Nevermind deserves to have sold every one of the 30 million copies it has to date. While hipsters and snobs say that In Utero is a better album, there would be no In Utero without Nevermind, as the whole rock scene even today would be different without it. It was a game changer, a breakthrough, and not just for music.

Musically, it is a strong album from start to finish. Every song is a blast of noise, distortion and power, yet always anchored with melody, hooks and catchy turns of phrase. The singles are legendary, from the obvious punch of Smells Like Teen Spirit, to the watery, chill of Come As You Are, to the bounce of Lithium. Drain You, Breed and On A Plain rank amongst the best album tracks ever recorded. Polly and Something In The Way showed they weren’t hiding behind the distortion, displaying quiet composure and depth that few of their peers managed.

The rhythm section of Grohl’s pounding drums and Krist Novoselic’s fuzzy, lively basslines keep the songs moving throughout the 40 minute runtime, counterbalancing the chaos of Kurt’s incendiary vocals and guitar. While many questioned the meaning of his lyrics, his ability to craft a memorable line or rhyme was never in doubt. And his delivery could knock you over or break your heart.

Technically speaking, while he may not have been the most gifted guitarist, he wrote some of the most famously catchy riffs in rock history, that a thousand kids could learn, and learn from. For a three piece, the guitar is solid throughout, always packing a punch and complementing his lyrics.

Sure, it’s a commercial alt-rock album, the songs follow a quiet/loud pattern that Cobain admitted he worried was too much like the Pixies, but so what, without Nirvana, the Pixies and hundreds of other bands would not be so well known today, which is a great thing. This album brought heavy rock back into the mainstream, and launched Grunge as a genre worthy of attention.

Away from the music itself and the effect this album has had on other music, it put Seattle on the map as a genuine hub for alternative music, which it remains to this day. It made heroes of the outcasts. And it spawned a thousand other bands, inspiring slackers around the world and giving them a real belief that they could become the biggest band in the world.

In many ways, it’s the sort of album, and the sort of band, that hard rock is crying out for as much in 2011 as it was twenty years ago.

For more from the players involved, hear an excellent 6 Music special here, featuring Dave Grohl, Krist Novoselic and producer Butch Vig.

For the final words, as Kurt sang, ‘Our little group has always been and always will until the end.’ I’m in the group, and this album is the group’s treasure.

Thursday, 15 September 2011


Friday at Moseley Folk Festival 2011 was a sundrenched day of acoustic delights and organic cider, soundtracked by Crystal Fighters, Gruff Rhys, Badly Drawn Boy and Villagers.

The high point was Villagers, the stage name of Irish singer-songwriter Conor O’Brien. As the sun began to set, he and his touring band gave a stirring performance of songs from his Mercury-nominated debut Becoming A Jackal, and previewed several songs which could feature on its follow up, expected next year.

After their hour-long performance, I chatted to Conor about the gig, his year of relentless touring and his plans for following up an acclaimed debut.

“It was a bit of a revelation for us. We've always had exciting shows in Birmingham, a few times in the Glee Club and once in the HMV Institute," he said of the show.

“We weren't necessarily expecting this show to be as good, considering the fact that it was a festival and not all of the audience were there to see us particularly. We were surprised and astounded at the response. A lot of love for Moseley Folk Fest.”

Amongst minimal onstage talk, Conor had announced that the gig was their last UK gig for a while, with just a handful of European dates left to play on the tour. 

“I'm writing a new album at the moment. I'm pretty sure I've got the title already. It's just exciting to have the time to write again after all of the madness. I forgot how good it feels to have time to digest,” Conor said.

“I’ve written quite a lot of songs, especially in the last few months,” he revealed, referring back to the new songs the band played, one of which was finished only days before the festival. “I want to make dance music, in the widest possible sense of the term. I'm sort of bored of introspective-sounding music. I'm sure I'll fall in love with it again, but I'm being pulled in a different direction. I think the lyrics will continue up the path but the music is going travelling. I'm listening to a lot of Meters and Allen Toussaint.”

On the question of following up a debut featuring an Ivor Novello winning song, Conor laughed off any notion of pressure.

“I enjoy it. No nerves, no challenge. Just a lot of little self-created challenges,” he said.

Tuesday, 6 September 2011

Mercury Prize.

It’s Mercury day again. What kind of blogger would I be without chucking in my two cents.

Last year’s winners The xx were the first winners since Portishead in 1995 that I actually agreed with, which may show you how my taste differs from the eclectic (or sometimes bizarre) choices of the judging panel.

Even last year The xx wouldn’t have been my first choice (Laura Marling or Villagers FYI) but still, they deserved it more than Speech Debelle or Ms Dynamite.
While I have enjoyed individual songs from quite a few of the albums nominated, Metronomy, Everything Everything, this year there are three artists from the 12 that I would be happy to see win. First up, and the album I would most like to win, is Anna Calvi’s self-titled debut.

Her blend of guitar prowess, theatrics and an impressive vocal range – from force of nature to gentle chanteuse – set her apart in a market dominated by female solo artists, and would make her a worthy winner.

Album opener Rider to the Sea builds nicely into a perfect encapsulation of her technical ability, while her soft, breathy vocals on No More Words show she can do sultry as well as she can power, which is then evident on Desire and Suzanne and I.

The second nominee I would be happy to see win would be James Blake. His album, also a self-titled debut, is innovative and yet soulful, sparse but emotive. The use of his own crooned vocals as samples, layered over trippy, dubstep beats, is an unexpected but winning formula. A win could see him conquer the mainstream.

Next up is a woman many have compared Anna Calvi to, somewhat due to Calvi’s work with producer Rob Ellis, PJ Harvey, who could become the first artist to win the Mercury Prize twice, with her brilliant Let England Shake album.

The war-themed concept album is a modern classic, and deserves to be recognised as so, however, the boost the award would give to Calvi or Blake makes me favour them.

After The xx, who were the bookies favourites last year, I reckon the panel will go obscure again, which I hope will benefit Calvi, but unfortunately, I doubt it. I will stick my neck out and say it could be Metronomy or Ghostpoet who triumph.

Saturday, 27 August 2011

Reading Festival.

After my chat with Bethan Elfyn earlier this week, I began to get nostalgic for Reading, and as the ever derisory TV coverage disappoints again, I decided to share some of the most memorable moments from the five times I attended. I’ve seen many great performances there, not all are listed here, these are instead the biggest, funniest and craziest stories that stick out when I think back.
One of the great things about Reading is the mix of new and old bands, especially getting to see reformed bands there before anywhere else.
I was mainly waiting for Smashing Pumpkins, one of my favourite bands of all time, who, having reformed after a seven year hiatus, were closing the festival on the Main Stage in 2007, when I caught Nine Inch Nails immediately before them.
I’d heard a few songs but didn’t know too much of their music but was blown away during their hour set, which culminated in the band completely trashing the stage, including throwing a pretty large amp off the stage. Trent Reznor then reappeared alone amongst the carnage to play Hurt in one of the most poignant moments I’ve witnessed at the festival.
Smashing Pumpkins came out and played a great set, which just topped the evening off, but NIN’s set has always stuck in my mind.
Another great newly-reformed and UK exclusive set came from Rage against the Machine in 2008. They were the main draw of the festival for many and rumours abounded from when we arrived on Thursday about what crazy stunt they would pull. Surprisingly enough, one of the more far-fetched rumours turned out to be true, as the band were marched onto the stage to the sound of sirens, dressed in orange ‘Guantanamo Bay style’ jump suits , complete with black bags over their heads.
It was a great protest from the ever politically-charged band, and their impressive commitment saw them play the entire opener ‘Bombtrack’ still with the bags over their heads. An incendiary set peppered with anti-Bush and Blair statements followed, it was the stuff of legend.

The Foo Fighters headlining in 2005 was another great headline set, the highlight undoubtedly being Dave Grohl stepping back behind the kit 13 years after Nirvana played their iconic last UK gig.
The next great moment again involves a reformed band, but again they weren’t the stars of the show. Having missed the craze of the Libertines by a year or so, I was excited when they were announced to finally reform in 2010, with many doubting they would ever make it onto the stage together. They did however, pulling a huge crowd and playing a decent set just before unlikely headliners Arcade Fire.
Unfortunately, for the many that left after Pete and Carl had cleared off, Arcade Fire came out and in their own humble, quirky and infectiously passionate way, stole their thunder with the best performance of the weekend, mixing material from the epic The Suburbs with anthems from their debut Funeral.
Other great headliners came from the Pixies in 2005 and Metallica in 2008. Not all headline sets go so well, and my ill-feeling towards the Red Hot Chili Peppers was set in stone with a frightfully indulgent and boring set in 2007, they had no chance against the Smashing Pumpkins anyway, but they didn’t even try, instead playing a quiet set filled with long solos and breakdowns. People booed, it was dreadful. Other poor sets came from Franz Ferdinand in 2006 and Razorlight in 2007, both of who shouldn’t have been anywhere near a headline slot.  Rant over.
Some sets not going according to plan can however lead to them being more memorable. For instance, we weren’t paying any attention to Panic! At the Disco in 2006 until singer Brendan Urie was knocked unconscious by a bottle thrown from the crowd. He deserves respect for getting up and finishing the set.
Placebo’s set, also in 2006 was blighted by technical problems, and in the longest gap of no music in the middle of their set, the cameras instead panned around the crowd and twenty minutes of impromptu flashing occurred. Nowhere else but at Reading.
Crazy punks Be Your Own Pet had announced that their sets at Reading and Leeds in 2008 were to be their last, and they must have been in a celebratory mood before their penultimate set at Reading, playing a half an hour set completely smashed. Singer Jemina Pearl could barely speak let alone sing and their usual two minute songs ran at around 45 seconds each. Still it was pretty funny.
Playing a smaller stage at the same time as the biggest band of the moment can also be a problem, as Coheed & Cambria found when coming up against Arctic Monkeys in 2006. However, their small crowd, which made up maybe only a quarter of the tent, didn’t let it bother them and they obliged with one of the best gigs of the weekend.
And a million more.

Thursday, 25 August 2011

Bethan Elfyn.

A birds-eye view

It’s that time of year again, twilight for the festival season but the August Bank Holiday week means there is still time for the biggest blowout of all. I talk of course of Reading Festival, which is, in my uninformed opinion (having never been to any other), the best festival there is.

Having first experienced it as a naïve 16 year old in 2005, I was seduced by its madness and have attended five times in total, this year being only the second I’ve missed since. The fusion of every hype band of every genre of the moment and iconic sets from returning legends make it the only festival to rival Glastonbury for choice and exclusivity.

Add to this the chaos and adventure of thousands of other crazy, unhinged but fun-loving individuals camping on top of each other and you have somewhere unlike anywhere else on earth for one weekend a year.

My second interviewee, Bethan Elfyn of the BBC, knows all about the magic of Reading festival, having been a compere on the NME/Radio 1 stage for over 10 years now.

“It’s an electric atmosphere from the first band right the way through. The level of the music fans who come to Reading every year astound me. They'll know all the words to songs by bands that I've only just discovered,” she says, taking time out from a busy week in which she is filling in for Lauren Laverne on 6 Music each morning before heading to Reading on Friday.

Throughout the week on the radio she has alluded to her excitement for the weekend ahead, this year’s NME/R1 stage will see sets from Beady Eye, Jane’s Addiction and The Streets, so what’s like to be onstage and backstage at the festival?

“It’s ridiculously exciting, busy and hectic. There's loads of crew lugging heavy gear, bands looking nervous, a stage manager shouting at everyone, sulky sound guys, indifferent lighting guys, and a whole load of friends and liggers.

“I'm glad that I’m busy and occupied in amongst all the chaos. I get to see everything and anything; the crowd, the bands, the crews, it’s a bird-eye view. As you can tell I love it!” says Bethan, who also hosts a show a week on BBC Wales and Absolute Radio since leaving Radio 1 last year after over a decade at the station.

When Bethan first hosted the NME/R1 stage with Huw Stephens in 2000, she had never been to the festival before, over ten years later, how does she look back on her tenure?

“I’d been to Leeds the year before and I'd been to plenty of Glastonburys, as well as other smaller festivals, but Reading was a formidable idea to me, a proper Rock festival. I was a bag of nerves for at least the first 8 years of being at Reading,” she admits, as well as revealing that despite the massive growth in the popularity of the festival, not much has changed backstage.

“It hasn't changed much, it’s just a little more organised and I’m a little calmer about being there and doing my job. There's a great family vibe with the crew who work on the R1 stage, so it’s all about catching up with old friends. Some bands have played there loads too – it’s great when you see them grow and get bigger each year - like Two Door Cinema Club filling the tent last year and being on the main stage this year.”

I think audiences at Reading are a true indication of a band’s popularity, seeing a full tent for an early set – such as the aforementioned Two Door set last year – is evidence of a band on the up, and Bethan takes great pleasure in playing a part in that.

“I like seeing the smaller bands, the newer stuff, like Pulled Apart by Horses or Frankie and the Heartstrings, they are my sort of bands,” she says of this year’s acts. It isn’t only small bands that play on the NME/R1 stage though, so who sticks in the mind of Bethan out of the hundreds of bands to grace the stage since she has been hosting.

“John Paul Jones, Dave Grohl and Josh Homme's Them Crooked Vultures show - Jones had a hefty array of instruments, while Grohl is the hardest, loudest drummer I've ever seen and heard up close - no competition! There are so many but some others are Beth Ditto getting the crowd to sing We Are the Champions, girls fainting for the Kooks and Mike Patton's pee bucket,” she says.

Finally, what is it that makes this the festival for Bethan? “The physical blast of noise from the cheers is incredible. It can be a crazed place, a young place, a vibrant festival, and yet the legends and the old stagers still have a place too, which is very important.”

Thanks to Bethan for taking time out of her hectic week to talk to me, and thanks to her for DJing the Silent Disco at 3am last year, what I remember of it was great. Having wrote this I’m now sad that I won’t be seeing her or the festival this year.

Monday, 15 August 2011

Laura Snapes.

Life in the ‘normal’ office

There are some similarities between my first interviewee, Laura Snapes and myself. We are both 22 years old, passionate about music and work in offices. Unfortunately for me, the office she works in is the NME office, which I can’t really compete with. C’est la vie.

Laura is currently Assistant Rev­iews Editor at what is still the first port of call for alternative British music journalism. It was always her dream to work at the NME, as it is still mine, and likewise many others' (hopefully) reading this. Alongside this she is also a regular contributor for The Guardian, Uncut and The Quietus. She is modest however at holding such a lofty, enviable position at such a young age.

“I suppose people have preconceptions about what the NME office is like, based on both prejudices and history, but it's a pretty normal place to be, honest,” she assures me. After spending time in the Kerrang! office on my own work experience, I’m inclined to agree.

Laura’s rise began at an early age; she decided a career in music journalism was for her at just 13.

“It started out as a legitimate way to meet bands that I liked without being a creepy stalker and in fact, still is. I got into writing for the local paper and doing fanzines,” she explains. I know the stalker feeling well.

By 17 she had secured work experience at the NME, no mean feat I can assure you from personal experience, and when she managed to turn this into an on-going working relationship, an even more difficult feat, her dream began to become reality.

“After my work experience, I got asked to start contributing. I wrote on and off over the years until my first year at university in Bristol, when I started writing for the magazine most weeks, as well as editing the music section of the student paper. A job came up at NME, I applied and got it, so I quit university and moved to London.”

Laura celebrated her first anniversary at NME just a few weeks ago. So, one year on, how has it stacked up against her dreams, apart from being a ‘normal place to be’?

“I knew the job I was applying for entailed a bit of data entry, so I wasn't under the illusion that it was going to be some riotous Almost Famous-type malarkey,” she says honestly. “Some days the job is like having any office job but a bit more fun, and then others, when you're working at festivals or the NME Awards, they're brilliant,” she gratefully adds.

So that is how she got to where she is now, but outside the office what does she think of her industry, an industry some have said is in decline (see an excellent defence here from the aforementioned The Quietus).

“I think people who love discussing music will always be into it,” she declares. “Because of the internet, it's harder to get your voice heard amongst the crowd when frankly, there's so much terrible writing online to sift through. For me, the problem is less being able to access music for free, but being able to access music writing for free, on the internet.

“I'm not saying that you should always have to pay to read music journalism, but the fact that so many very established, very good publications and websites don't pay their writers generates a culture where it's more expected that you'll write for free sometimes, and good writing is a talent that you deserve to be able to make a living from.”

I was told from day one of my degree that journalism wasn’t a well-paid career, but it comes as a shock when Laura reveals this. I can’t help but wonder how often the journalism I read has been written by someone who wasn’t paid anything for it.

After she highlights the somewhat suspect writing that litters the internet (see this blog for more), I ask about the importance of well-written features, something she regularly contributes alongside her reviews duties. She’s modest again when instead of selling something she, or even NME, has produced recently, she points me in the direction of a NY Times feature on The National (her favourite band) from last year and a 12-page cover story on ST Vincent from Under the Radar magazine.

“All forms of good writing about music are valid and enjoyable in their own form, but I do personally really get a kick out of reading a brilliant feature,” she says. She may not have volunteered one, but see an excellent feature of hers here.

One thing I can’t help but ask Laura about are the comment boxes that now appear beneath almost every article on the internet. A quick glance around NME.COM will reveal that not everyone agrees with what is published. While many are simply passionate about music they love, just as many are hostile and personal trolls being spiteful for seemingly no reason.

I first became aware of Laura on NME.COM last year when she waded into the comments sections on several of her own pieces (a rarity amongst journalists), defending herself against both types of people. I was impressed by her passion and conviction, as well as her obvious belief that it wasn’t just a one-way conversation.

“I used to be terrible for kicking off, but I do genuinely try not to do that now. I am quite obsessive about watching comments just so I'm aware of what's being said. Obviously it's nice if people enjoy what you've written, but those people don't tend to comment,” she notes.

“If a comment is negative then sometimes I can just ignore it, but other times especially if you realise they're right, which sometimes happens, they can be pretty upsetting,” she admits.

Unfortunately, with exposure comes criticism, however with a hugely successful first year under her belt, Laura has already learnt many lessons about life in a job that many people would stab their own best friend in the back to have, and many more will surely follow.

My thanks to Laura for helping me out with this first interview; her success would have gone to the head of many others I’m sure but she has been a pleasure to deal with.

To end the interview, a standard question at this time of year, what does Laura think about this year’s Mercury Prize nominations?

“My favourite British album of the year - Wild Beasts' Smother - wasn't nominated, which I was disappointed by, as it'd be wonderful for them to get the recognition. I think PJ Harvey will win, though my favourite from the list is Everything Everything's Man Alive. I think those chaps are modern pop geniuses.”